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This is really two ops in one (bargain!) - the Fortune Theatre itself, and it's longest running production, Woman in Black, which is still going strong 12 years on.
Firstly the theatre. Located pretty much in the middle of the West End (Russell Street, Covent Garden) this theatre seems overshadowed by its much larger, plusher neighbours. It must be admitted that first impressions here are not exactly awe inspiring - everything looks a little cramped, a little run down. However, when you consider how it was built, tucked under and around an impressive Church of Scotland church, you may start to appreciate its ingenuity. Rather than ascending a grand staircase rising above a plush ticket office, you are ushered off to the side, down some stairs and into the bar. As far as I can work out, the Upper circle is at ground level, and everything else is buried beneath the church itself - very apt considering their most successful production is a ghost story.
The original design is late 20's, so there's a high peak of elegance and grandeur to be fading, and the delightful Nouveaux style figure of Fortune at the top of the façade is worth looking out for. It's probably as well it is on a quiet road, as groups would defiantly need to rally outside, as once inside there's no room for a large group, except in their seats. The loos are tiny, but clean and actually a step up from various more impressive sounding venues. The bar is cosy, but not ludicrously overpriced, and the option of pre-ordering drinks for the interval speeds things along later in the evening. Souvenirs (sweatshirts, play texts etc) are available from a
little cubby off the bar. Once into the main stalls area, things continue shabby, and a little close packed, but surprisingly comfortable for all that (although we did swap seats to make sure my long legged partner got the aisle seat.) Ushers with trays of ice cream in the aisles at the interval may be old fashioned, but makes it feel like a Proper Theatre. All in all the venue is a decent, but not intimidating, theatre, and its slightly tatty elegance does create an atmosphere.
To move on to the performance - Since June 1989 the theatre has been home to The Woman in Black, adapted from the Susan Hill novel by Stephen Mallatratt, making it the second oldest West End play, baby sister to the Mousetrap. When we accepted the tickets, I knew nothing more than that it was a ghost story, and the programme, while filling in a lot of information about the process and the cast, is careful not too give away too much of the plot - an example I will try and follow.
The cast is small - two main characters and the action takes place upon a single set. However this gives the actors a real chance to shine, as this is not least a play about plays, about the act of acting. The action starts with a lone figure, perched at the front of the stage, reading, fumblingly, the first few lines of a memoir, until heartily interrupted from the audience by a man, apparently his producer. This unusual start has the effect of drawing the audience into the world of the play, and sets up the first layer of acting and imagination. Arthur Kipps (played by Frank Barrie, who made the show for me) has written his memoirs of a particular period of his life, and seeks the assistance of an actor in preparing to present them to an audience of family of friends. Mr Kipps is at pains to point out that this is not to be an entertainment, rather an accounting of facts, to lay bare the truth of the matter. The actor is equally adamant that without at least an element of performance, no audience member will stay awake long enough to hear the story.
Thus the Actor takes on the role of Mr Kipps for the sake of the future performance, and Mr Kipps takes on all the supporting roles - of which there must be 12 or 4 in the course of the play. They use a few simple props (a giant wicker travelling case, changes of coats and hats, a suitcase and knapsack) to suggest to their imagined audience, and to the playgoers, the changing settings and events. In addition the actual audience has the advantage of some fantastic lighting effects and a 'secondary' set, behind a gauze, where the same shadowed shapes become by turn backstage at the theatre, a graveyard, and the upstairs room of the mysterious haunted house. The actors movement and actions, together with these simple effects and props, create a picture probably more vivid than any film set could equal, using the power of the audience's imagination The chief effect is that of recorded sound, which is used to terrifying effect throughout.
Eerie lighting, suspense, and sound create an incredible atmosphere - I didn't scream, but those around e did, and I left the theatre emotionally drained - total catharsis - from the suspense and the shocks. In many ways this is a 'real' ghost story, a bit like Blair Witch in a way, rather than a spooks and special effects show - and all the more chilling for it. The production very cunningly returns us through the levels of acting and storytelling to the present, without ever providing closure upon the Woman in Black - who by being left out of the bowing and applause, and also the programme, is left 'real' as all the other acted roles are stripped away. The pattern of the story sets up a dread in the audience - like Blackbeard, all those who pry into the secrets of the Woman In Black will be punished horrifically. Will The Actor's family be affected by the curse, as he too has pried, and seen the Woman in Black - will we? In a play of illusions and make believe, not allowing the central Woman to pierce the illusion and step in front of us as a mortal actress leaves the audience unsettled and involved.
This is pure gothic drama - visceral and immediate, actin on emotions not reason, and therein lies its charm. I can't imagine anyone being bored with this, although I certainly wouldn't recommend it for younger children, or anyone who's highly strung. From what I gather in conversation the play bears no real resemblance to the film of the same name, and I am going to have to read the novel to find out how adapted the story as been. But a fantastic (in all its meanings) piece of theatre, which suits the slightly shabby, slightly haunted, intimate venue down to the ground.
If you ever get the chance, go and see it - a must if you love horror, or if you've ever sat around telling ghost stories by torchlight, and given yourself the scares! Even if you think you don't like live theatre, this could be the play to change your mind.